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Joy is in the “How” Not the “What”

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In Lucinda Williams’ song, “Joy,” the narrator tells an unknown person (presumably a former lover), “I don’t want you anymore/‘Cause you took my joy.” Complaining, “You got no right to take my joy/I want it back,” the narrator announces his quest to recover his joy by searching in specific geographic locations: “I’m gonna go to West Memphis/And look for my joy … I’m gonna go to Slidell/And look for my joy.” With an angry, pulsating, defiant backbeat, the song chronicles a desperate, bitter, futile bid to recover the joy that the narrator lost. And it illustrates an important lesson about the nature of joy, and where—or rather how—to find it. The narrator in Williams’ song mistakenly believes that joy is found some other place, rather than the place where we are. He doesn’t understand that joy is not found in things outside us, but rather in our inner orientation to those things.

Put another way, joy is not obtained by acquiring things that give us pleasure. Rather, joy is acquired by finding pleasure in the things we have been given. Our search for joy, in fact, is often inversely related to our attainment of it. This is because joy is not an emotion or feeling that we find in the accumulation of things, but rather a state of the soul by which we find tranquility in the things we have (or don’t have). Indeed, our restless search for joy in places that it cannot be is often the very impediment to the joy we seek. We cannot find joy in things themselves (or in the quest for things). Rather joy is gained only in a proper relationship to the things we have, as well as to those things we cannot have. This includes not just material goods, but also those goods that we cannot see or touch that call us to a higher attainment and a deeper appreciation of the lives we have been given.

Joy is not the result of accumulating things or even relationships. Rather, joy is the name we give for the contentment and satisfaction that comes with thankfulness to God for the gifts we have been given, and consolation for those we have not. As such, joy is the product of the habits and practices that Christians call virtues. Gratitude, hospitality, generosity, graciousness and forgiveness are a short list of the virtues that contribute to authentic joy. When we cultivate the hopeful virtues, we might be surprised by the joy that accompanies them. And when we find that joy, it motivates us to keep doing those things—cultivating those virtues—that produced it in the first place.

The Vatican II Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World begins by articulating the close relationship between joy and hope. Indeed, the document is most often known by its Latin title, Gaudium et Spes— joy and hope. We can find joy in the things we have— whether material goods or personal relationships—only when all things are ordered toward the proper object of our hope and joy: the love we find in Christ. As Gaudium et Spes says, “The Lord is the goal of human history, the focal point of the longings of history and of civilization, the center of the human race, the joy of every heart and the answer to all its yearnings.”

This is precisely what caused St. Augustine to declare to God, in his great work The Confessions, “you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it comes to rest in you.” The Confessions is St. Augustine’s version of Lucinda Williams’ song, “Joy.” He sought joy in both material and immaterial things, such as sexual pleasure, close friendships, esoteric philosophy—even petty theft! He said to God, “Give me chastity and continence: but not yet! For I was afraid you would … heal me from … concupiscence, which I wanted to be satisfied, not snuffed out.”

His quest took him on long geographic journeys from his home—Carthage, Rome, Milan, and places along the way. He committed false starts, met dead ends, dug dry wells, and took futile detours. “I continued to walk in the depraved paths of superstitious sacrilege … merely because I preferred them to other paths. Those other paths I did not seek out piously; no, I set myself up as their enemy and contended against them.”

But St. Augustine came to understand that the search for joy was the very impediment to its attainment. Joy was not to be found until the striving ended. And, of course, the striving ended for St. Augustine in humble submission to the Lord of Joy. He realized that joy is not found in fulfilling desires, but rather by surrendering those desires entirely to Christ. This is the joy that surpasses all understanding.

Dr. Kenneth Craycraft is an attorney and the James J. Gardner Family Chair of Moral Theology at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary & School of Theology.

This article appeared in the November 2022 edition of The Catholic Telegraph Magazine. For your complimentary subscription, click here.

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